First published in Japanese in 1995 and now in English translation, The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami takes the form of ten short stories linked by a central character, the titular Mr Nishino. Each encapsulates one of ten affairs Nishino conducts through his life ranging from schoolboy romance to extramarital liaisons. Sadly, despite his notable talents as a lothario, Nishino cannot make any of these trysts last.
Nishino’s first appearance is as a ghost. He has returned to visit a former lover, Natsumi, to fulfil a promise he made to her when he was alive. Also, he explains, he is lonely. Natsumi naturally is unenthusiastic about entertaining a phantom and leaves Nishino to continue his path to the next life alone. She admits that, although she was madly in love with Nishino, their relationship ultimately failed because she believed he was never “serious” about it. Herein lies the clue to Nishino’s lack of success: he cannot commit.
The following stories go on to examine how this issue impacts the nine other women who become involved with Nishino. As to be expected, Nishino often torpedoes his chances with one girl by courting another. For example, he two-times his girlfriend Subaru with her flatmate while, on another occasion, he invites a former lover to dinner with his current partner. Instead of a reconciliation, he embarrasses both women and hastens their joint departure.
Kawakami states the obvious with such acuity that her prose becomes resonant.
So far, so stereotypical. But this novel is far more than a tirade against bad male behavior. Nishino has no independent voice; he is described only by the women with whom he interacts and who, more often than not, are the ones to finish the affair. As the stories progress, it becomes clear that he is not just a ladykiller but also a device to examine why women avoid long-term commitment too.
Kawakami gives us many reasons, including the example of Rei, who prizes her freedom more than Nishino’s attentions, and Eriko, whose previous experiences make her wary of submitting to new ones.
While the female characters occasionally doubt their self-analysis, or their reasoning remains equivocal, Kawakami eventually reveals the root of Nishino’s problems. It is his eleventh love: the sister who committed suicide after her baby died. He cannot surrender his heart because it belongs to this shadowy sibling, we deduct along with the girlfriend of the last story, Nozomi. The hints of a higher emotion, which Kawakami has dropped through the previous episodes, are confirmed when Nishino confesses to Nozomi that he wishes to either become his sister or be reincarnated as her son.
At first Nozomi dismisses this idea as nonsense but she reflects on it after her split with Nishino, as Kawakami writes:
I wonder if someday, somewhere, Nishino was ever able to meet his sister and her child again … Was he able to live out his life, and to love someone? Did he ever find a place for himself in this relentless world?
These sentences precisely describe the narrative thread of this novel and, arguably, most others. The search for meaning and identity in an unforgiving environment is a well-trodden path. However, Kawakami states the obvious with such acuity that her prose becomes resonant. The simplicity of the stories and their style is deceptive. Underneath it lies layers of significance on to which each re-reading sheds a little more light. Endlessly thought-provoking, The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is all the more remarkable for couching its insights in such accessible terms.